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State test results show our students have proficiency problems

Original post made by Diana Diamond on Aug 27, 2007

The news, at first blush, seemed great. The 2007 STAR scores (California Standardized Testing and Reporting Program) were released last week and Palo Alto student scores were among the highest in the state. Santa Clara County students outperformed the state average.

Wow, I thought.

For example, in English/language arts, 54 percent of Santa Clara County students in grades 2 through 11 tested as proficient or advanced, compared to 43 percent statewide. In math, 60 percent of county students in grades 2 through 7 were proficient or advanced, compared to 41 percent across the state.

In 11th-grade English, 81 percent of Gunn High School students were proficient or advanced, with Palo Alto High School trailing by only 2 percentage points.

But then I started looking closely at the STAR scores, and the picture is not a rosy one. In some cases the scores are bleak.

Let's start with Palo Alto schools. Fourth grade scores for English/language arts had 87 percent in the proficient or advanced levels. But there are three other categories — "basic," "below basic" and "far below basic." Some 13 percent of students were at these levels.

Santa Clara County scores were far worse. Fourth-grade scores for English showed 62 percent were proficient or advanced, while 37 percent of the fourth graders were basic or below (the numbers are rounded out). In other words, 37 percent of our fourth graders are not proficient.

In fourth-grade math for the county, 65 percent were proficient and above while 35 percent were basic or below. These are alarming, especially since state results are worse.

I looked at the high school scores in the Palo Alto Unified School District. Several subjects are tested and I picked those grades with the most students taking the test. Granted, some of these scores were simply "scores." but the numbers, by themselves, raise some concerns.

In sophomore geometry, 67 percent were proficient or above and 33 percent were basic or below (12 of the 33 percent were in the "below basic" category). That's one-third that is basic or below.

In freshman Algebra II, 100 percent were proficient or above, and none were basic or below. I don't know who those algebra teachers are, but they sure seem to be doing a great job. However, I've been told that those taking this test were on a fast-track and this was the culmination of three years of learning.

In freshman World History, 67 percent were proficient or above, and 32 percent were basic or below. That 32 percent figure in Palo Alto is upsetting. In 11th-grade Earth Science, only 21 percent were proficient (!) while a shocking 79 percent were basic or below. If I were the new superintendent in Palo Alto, I sure would look into these numbers.

The 12th-grade physics scores were somewhat better: 66 percent of students were proficient or above, while 34 percent were basic or below.

I won't detail the county scores here, only to say that nearly all categories were lower than those in Palo Alto. That probably explains our soaring housing prices.

But I do want to dwell on Santa Clara County scores in general — the heart of Silicon Valley. I don't think it's just all right to congratulate ourselves and say we scored better than the state — because our overall "basic or below" numbers are real problems. World History 9th-grade scores at the county level showed 57 percent proficient, and 43 percent basic or below; 11th-grade U.S. history scores had 44 percent proficient or above and a whopping 55 percent below basic — in our own country's history.

Are Silicon Valley Schools failing our kids? I think the answer is yes — perhaps not the best and the brightest, but in some cases the majority.

"If a student is not in AP classes or an honors program, the course quality falls off the cliff," Prof. Michael Kirst of Stanford University, the former president of the state Board of Education, recently told me.

Why are they doing so poorly?

"The top 15 percent of students are competitive with other students across the country. But after that the students are weak, especially in the middle and lower ranges. Our Silicon Valley schools focus on the top and don't do much for the middle or bottom," Kirst said.

Perhaps one indication of our poor-performing students is that more than 70 percent of entering freshmen students (those out of high school) at Foothill and DeAnza community colleges need remedial courses in both math and English. And these are our local kids!

I don't want to point fingers and blame the students or the teachers or the parents or the superintendents. It's a problem for all of us.

But it's complex, made even more so by an analysis of the scores by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Jack McConnell. He said last week that the school testing gap is just not economic, meaning that the low-socio-economic levels score lower than the upper-income kids.

The reverse is true, McConnell's analysis shows. These test results show that poor white students often scored better at math than higher-income African-Americans and Latinos. And, in general, whites and Asians scored higher than African-Americans and Latinos.

So we are left with a possible racial variation in scores, and with "not proficient" scores for thousands of our kids of all colors in the valley, and hundreds in Palo Alto.

It's a problem we must solve. Failing students lead to failing adults.

Comments (26)

Posted by David Cohen, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 27, 2007 at 10:45 pm

As a high school teacher and a parent, I welcome the attention being paid to uncovering any potential means to improve our schools. I also must say up front that standardized tests have a place in schools, and have the potential to provide valuable data. However, relying too much on standardized test scores poses a problem. At least this column mentions another educational outcome - the number of HS graduates still needing remediation.

Under No Child Left Behind, our country has learned the flaws of high-stakes single measures of success. (The problematic outcomes were entirely predictable, but our Congress steamrolled ahead regardless). In the reauthorization efforts underway now in Congress, there is bi-partisan support for rectifying the problems by making NCLB less punitive, more flexible, more reliant upon mulitple measures of school effectiveness, and more based on growth models (monitoring students' long-term performance rather than comparing this year's fourth graders to last year's, for example). Any single measure has its shortcomings, so hopefully, there will be a NCLB reauthorization this year that will end the idiocy of imbuing one measurement with the full power to "make or break." The law has actually prevented many schools from doing what we know is best for students. Reading and math mania, aimed at test-score improvement, have pressured schools to train more than educate, yielding children who can perform on tests, but they get less education in arts, science, history, and PE.

While NCLB has handcuffed teachers and schools (not in PA, so far), the law doesn't stop journalists from examining the issues more deeply. If Diana Diamond or the Weekly really want to provide a valuable service to readers and to the broader community, they could dig deeper by asking teachers, principals, students, and a broader sampling of testing experts about testing, and not taking for granted that the scores show what they claim to show. For example, Ms. Diamond is shocked that 79% of PA juniors are basic or below in Earth Science tests. Given much higher scores in other sciences, such a discrepancy might suggest that there is a sample-size or testing alignment issue more than a teaching/learning issue. At least she did gather information about the 100% proficiency in Algebra II - again, a number that, no matter how good the teachers are, suggests sampling or alignment issues are also in play.

No parent would be satisfied in a conference where a teacher simply reported, "Your child posted the following test scores..." We expect more information in order to understand and help our children, and must ask for more from our government and media when it comes to serving our schools.

Posted by parent, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 28, 2007 at 8:02 am

what conference? I have never had any interpretation of STAR testing scores received by either of my children - do they have conferences somewhere that I've not known about?

Posted by RWE, a resident of South of Midtown
on Aug 28, 2007 at 3:38 pm

parent, Mr. Cohen is speaking of the "parent-teacher" conferences that take place during the year; if you or the teacher thinks that STAR testing results are of import for your particular child, they will be discussed. If you want to know more about these tests and your child's performance on them, just ask your child's teacher.

Posted by Mike, a resident of College Terrace
on Aug 28, 2007 at 5:54 pm

We're definitely coming up short in the sciences and math, as a nation. At the district level, we're not so bad off. Also, keep in mind that 1 of every three new residents in Silicon Valley is from someplace else (another country), so lower cumulative language scores might come from that.

Posted by Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 28, 2007 at 6:01 pm


We requested a conference with our daughter's middle school math teacher because we didn't agree with the lane she was in. We showed the STAR test results to her and she told us quite plainly that STAR test results are something she never looks at for any of her students. She ended up the year being recommended for the summer bridge course to enable her to change lanes which is what we requested to no avail at the beginning of the year.

It goes back to the theory that the STAR test results test the teacher and the school, not the child.

Posted by Maria, a resident of Midtown
on Aug 28, 2007 at 8:35 pm

My Paly students knew the STAR tests counted for nothing for them as far as college entrance or class placement so they and most of their friends simply made a pattern on the answer sheets to get it over with - don't think that yields accurate results! The public schools waste far too much valuable teaching time doing tests - private schools don't have to do this. The district wants good test takers so forces teachers to teach to the test instead of teaching creatively.

Posted by David Cohen, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 28, 2007 at 11:46 pm

Just to clarify...

The conference I was referring to was a hypothetical conference. I was kind of picturing myself sitting down with my son's elementary school teacher. My son is too young to take the tests, but when he reaches that age, I'm assuming that the teacher wouldn't simply say, "Here are some test scores. Thanks for coming." If I really want to know how my child is doing in school, scores are a very small part of the whole picture. But in our current political climate (state and nation more than P.A. in particular), and under the banner of NCLB, we have too many people relying only on test scores to assess students and schools. Even outstanding tests in a flawless testing system would provide a limited view of the whole.

To Maria's comment, I would offer what I tell students. I sympathize, but I ask for their best effort. The tests may have some shortcomings, and may not be super-stimulating, but they only become a waste of time if students waste the test sheet. We *can* get something useful out of tests, but we have to be careful about blanket statements and assumptions at either extreme. As for creative teaching, I think we have very rich programs brimming with high-interest and creative courses and teaching methods, and we still get good test results. In some areas, we may get good test scores because of our creativity. The idea of "teaching to the test" would mean very different things in different subject areas and disciplines, so I won't go into too much more detail here. But the current provisions of NCLB guarantee that every school will eventually be deemed failing, at which point I hope we will be able to hold back the voices that will see the sky falling and call for "teaching to the test." Better yet, let's hope that Congress improves NCLB. Please contact Anna Eshoo, Diane Feinstein, and Barbara Boxer to express your feelings about measuring school quality solely by test scores which are expected to improve in statistically impossible ways.

Posted by RWE, a resident of South of Midtown
on Aug 29, 2007 at 8:24 am

I can appreciate Parent's concern, but in my experience, Maria has it right. My children thought that STAR testing was rediculous, and a waste of time. After reviewing the tests, I have to agree. Why should we be focusing on teaching to those tests, when there are SO many more productive things that we can accomplish in limited classrom time?

Education is becoming more and more about proving that basic competencies have been achieved by teaching to a test, rather than teaching to educate.

Nationally, we do need to improve our K-12 system, relative to other K-12 systems, internationally. That said, we have been too long manipulated by politicos who make a name for themselves by creating one competency hurdle after another that *handcuffs* real education in the classroom, instead of helping it.

Posted by British Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Aug 29, 2007 at 9:09 am

Interesting discussion.

Every August in Britain, the results of the A levels come out. The A levels are the exams that the equivalent of high school seniors take in June to get them into college. Every year the results nationally seem better than the year before with more students reaching the highest ranking. Two arguments come out of this, firstly the universities and big employers read this as the dumbing down of the tests to get better results and remedial teaching has to be done in 3rd level education. Secondly, the teachers and schools, as well as the government, say that this is a sign of success and improvement of teaching methods. Who is right? Can both groups be right? It is definitely an interesting way of looking at "teaching to the test".

Posted by yet another parent, a resident of Escondido School
on Aug 29, 2007 at 9:19 am

"For example, Ms. Diamond is shocked that 79% of PA juniors are basic or below in Earth Science tests. Given much higher scores in other sciences, such a discrepancy might suggest that there is a sample-size or testing alignment issue more than a teaching/learning issue."
Good call, Mr. Cohen. Only 36 students took that Earth Science test. My guess is that this is an alternative science class for students not interested in physics, chemistry or biology. They're probably taking it to fulfill their science requirement. There is no "Earth Science" class offered at Gunn (35 of the 36 test-takers were from Gunn), but there is an "Intro to Environmental Science" course listed as an easier alternative to chemistry.

Ms. Diamond's wording, although accurate, is somewhat alarmist. She would have been just as accurate to say, "64% of PA juniors are basic or above in Earth Science tests". But that wouldn't have made for an exciting article. Funny how data can be sensationalized, isn't it?

"At least she did gather information about the 100% proficiency in Algebra II - again, a number that, no matter how good the teachers are, suggests sampling or alignment issues are also in play."

This was also a sample size issue - she was looking at only freshmen taking the test, of which there were 31 students total - 22 Asian, 9 White. I agree with you that at least in this case she included that these students were in the super-accelerated lane.

Posted by parent, a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Aug 29, 2007 at 9:37 am

RWE, the only parent teacher conference I had was a brief one the first semester of 6th grade WAY back when...

Posted by Glass Half Full, a resident of another community
on Aug 31, 2007 at 7:04 am


How about, at least just once, a positive column for a change? Surely something is going right with the world and grumpiness is not always called for, even in Palo Alto, don't you think?


Glass Half Full

Posted by Michelle, a resident of Charleston Meadows
on Aug 31, 2007 at 8:01 am

What I would like to hear more about is suggestions for restructuring governance - both inn the city, and within PAUSD. Obviously, Palo Alto has begun to lose some of its patina, relative to years past.

We're not going to get that back by slash and burn of programs and personnel. Where are the new ideas? Where are the leaders to elaborate and execute sustainable vision?

Posted by Anna, a resident of Professorville
on Sep 6, 2007 at 3:08 pm

My children and their friends also blew off the Star tests - they knew they were a waste of time, so didn't bother to try and answer the questions correctly. Diana Diamond's conclusions may or may not be correct, but she is definitely INCORRECT in basing them on the Star test results! I think we need less testing days and more teaching days! And, Diana, you need to know and talk to high school students before you write about them.

Posted by Diana Diamond, Palo Alto Online blogger
on Sep 7, 2007 at 2:39 pm

Diana Diamond is a registered user.

Anna -

We may need less testing in schoos (a point we can later debate), but is it really okay for your children and their friiends to "blow off" the Star tests, saying they were a waste of time? A waste to whom? Star , which is a statewide exam, tests specific subject knowledge, and can help determine how much a student is learning (about math, world history or whatever), how much the class is learning, and whether the student's knowledge is below basic or advanced. How else can we determine whether students are competent in geometry or English? Don't you want to know? I do, because if they test below basic, schools can try to so something so that students can become more proficient.

Certainly the tests can be an excellent evaluation tool, for the student, the teacher, the class, the administration, the state. Just because these tests may not count toward a grade, doesn't mean they are a waste of time.


Posted by Parent, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 7, 2007 at 3:08 pm

Exactly my point Diana, Star tests the teacher, the school, the method, not the student.

Posted by Anna, a resident of Professorville
on Sep 10, 2007 at 2:10 pm

Parent has it correct - the Star tests test the teacher, not the student. They are a waste of time, which could be spent teaching! Diana needs to stop just passing off her opinions as fact!

Posted by Susan, a resident of Barron Park
on Sep 10, 2007 at 4:27 pm

Good grief Diana, how could you not know how your child was doing in school. We have grades, progress reports, SAT tests, etc. We don't need another layer of testing!

Posted by DDObserver, a resident of Evergreen Park
on Sep 10, 2007 at 10:47 pm

From Glass Half Full:
How about, at least just once, a positive column for a change? Surely something is going right with the world and grumpiness is not always called for, even in Palo Alto, don't you think?"

GHF: DD, much like right-wing radio, walks the other side of the street, appealing to those who like their glasses half empty. She never has a realistic solution to anything, it's just trying to drum up outrage over something - anything - whether real or not. To anyone on your "half-glass-full" side, it does seem rather tiresome, but to those on the other side, its like their lifeblood - amazing, but true! Do yourself a favor and just stop reading her from now on.

Posted by Terry, a resident of Midtown
on Sep 10, 2007 at 10:53 pm

I don't know much about Diana, but I think the Weekly is in the business of selling papers (or rather, the ads in them). My guess is Diana stirs the pot because that is what sells (and drives people to write forum posts!).

Posted by Mike, a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 12, 2007 at 5:36 pm

Glass Half Full and others-
You want to see articles about what is right with the world and positive? The Weekly and other local papers are full of articles like that. Take a look at this week's edition and see for yourself.

Feeling good and self-esteem are a disproportionately large focus for a lot of us here. I first noticed it when I moved here from across the country freshly out of college 35 years ago, and it still thrives today. Perhaps that is a contributor to current requirements for large amounts of remedial courses freshman year in our junior colleges, and even Cal State schools. Ignoring tests or failing to take them because they are 'irrelevant' seems a transparent way of trying to avoid responsibility for results in teaching, or for students in learning.

Finding things that need improvement and working to solve them is what makes a community get better over time. Those are the things Diana tackles. I am glad someone does.

Posted by Boom!, a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Sep 12, 2007 at 5:43 pm

"Finding things that need improvement and working to solve them is what makes a community get better over time. Those are the things Diana tackles. I am glad someone does."
Hey Mike, she's not the only one. Those who are critical of Diana share something in common with her - they're both "Finding things that need improvement" in the interest of improving the community.

Posted by Mike, a resident of Crescent Park
on Sep 12, 2007 at 6:04 pm

Maybe I'm just not seeing this correctly, but isn't it circular logic to argue to defend those who critize DD for raising 'issues that need improvement' by saying that we need people who raise issues that need improvement?

And by the way-I did not represent that Diana is the only one looking for issues that need solutions. I said that I am glad she does.

Is there some hidden agenda here where it's not OK for DD to raise issues but OK for others, and that people who respond in agreement to DD's issues are labeled the same as 'right wing radio callers'?

Posted by Get what you pay for, a resident of Ventura
on Sep 16, 2007 at 10:54 pm

I find it a bit ironic that Ms. Diamond - has routinely critized and complained about our school district spending too much money and has opposed every school funding mesure I can rember now complains about the results the schools are delivering.

Posted by Mom, a resident of South of Midtown
on Sep 17, 2007 at 9:36 am

We need to remember, the primary predictor of school success is the, not the school. Some things are simply completely beyond the school's ability to change. The school can't make sure that a Mom or a Dad turns off the electronics and helps the kid learn his homework...reads with him,...talks to him and helps him learn to think,...praises academic/reading success more than sport success...

Minus learning disabilities..if your child isn't doing well in the schools, look inside your family.

Posted by yet another parent, a resident of Escondido School
on Sep 17, 2007 at 11:20 am

Excellent point, Mom. There are years (decades, actually) of studies that have come to the same conclusion: The greatest predictor of a child's academic success is parental involvement. Period.

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